A Life in Journalism

         As a journalist, I've seen myself as a medium, giving word to the stories of other people.

         When I dashed into writing for Illinois Times in the early months of 1978, I knew I’d met my calling. I found the world full of wonders, and suddenly I was their discoverer. Discovery was way more fun than my lifelong sideline habit of silent watching.  

         I did my first reporting in a story called Picking up Sticks, documenting Springfield, Illinois, recovery from the Good Friday ice storm of 1978.

         Next came the Regrettable Lawrenceville Peephole Incident, the story of two sisters, factory workers in Lawrenceville, Illinois, whose protest of toilet cubicle spying cost them their jobs. That was an enterprise story. I read a brief on them in the Springfield Journal Register, tracked them down through their lawyer (making a fateful personal connection) and persuaded them to talk to me.

         Before that spring turned summer, I was partnering with photographer Sue Eslinger, my university colleague, traveling the Illinois highways — and skies above — and following the Mississippi in search of stories. We found them under every bush. Illinois felt like the Garden of Eden, and we — for it was the 1970s — felt like liberated women.

        In those two years, I did some of the best reporting of my career, illuminated by Sue’s wonderful photos.

         We started out big, chronicling the murder trial of Sandra Brewer, a young native American who’d shot her husband dead. She went free, in one of Illinois’ early acquittals of a battered woman for self-defense.

         A midwife indicted by the Illinois States Attorney for practicing medicine without a license, Kat Farrell, led us to chronicles of home birth, with Sue attending many as a photographer.

         In between big stories, we discovered living history in Illinois’ small towns, stumbling into men like Joe Akers, a hamlet newspaper editor who, with his brother Pete, had helped guide the state and save the world from Hitler. And Irv Peithmann, the Dust Bowl refugee who learned to read in the land the stories of native Americans back 10,000 years.

 

Bay Weekly

         I could start Bay Weekly’s story in so many ways. In 1978, when I wrote my first of hundreds of stories for Illinois Times. Even farther back in 1972, when I first taught a class in magazine production.

         Starting back there would make for a long story.

         To make a long story short, come home with me to Fairhaven Cliffs, in the southernmost reaches of Maryland’s Anne Arundel County. There, in the early 1990s, our small house is bursting with impatient creative energy.       

         You’d think Bill would have had enough journalism after 20 years of daily reporting, half of them in the Washington Bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But he has this plan to put his family to work.

         Alex has a new master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, on top of his undergraduate degree in rhetoric. He has finished an internship with The Nation, in Washington, D.C. Perhaps he’ll go prospecting for journalistic gold in Alaska.

         I’ve resumed my career as a college writing teacher, but I still carry a torch for weekly papers — and I’ve gotten in on the ground floor of desktop publishing. Where could that elevator take us?

         Bill wants us to make a newspaper. Better to do what we know best, we allow, than embark on another of his get-rich schemes. Here’s why: His parents imagined wealth from raising chinchillas in their basement. Bill’s alternatives are importing pottery from Haiti or launching a kayak guide service. By comparison, they make newspapering sound almost reasonable.

         If you write well of Chesapeake Country, he believes, Chesapeake Country will read. He’s started us thinking, and now ideas are stalking us.

         Tabloids range in rows over the dining room table to inspire our search for the perfect box to hold our ideas, which are popping like corn. Our tabloid collection is orderly; disorderly ideas rage through the house, ambushing us as we shower or sleep. So we measure and compare newspapers, mostly alternative weeklies, from the Village Voice to Illinois Times to The Onion to the Bay Guardian.

            Eleven inches by 14, we decide, is the perfect size. Not too long, not too wide. Not quite the Golden Rectangle, but close enough for journalism.

         A box that, ruled into columns, will hold all the good ideas we can imagine and borrow: Real Astrology and News of the Weird; Dock of the Bay, Bay Life and Bay Reflections; crosswords and Creature Features; the ads to pay for the paper and guide you to Chesapeake commerce; feature stories that made reading fun, like this sample from Vol. I, No. 1: April 22, 1993:

         Plastic vampire teeth, uppers and lowers, chomp at the sand alongside a tampon shield. An exploded shotgun shell rests near an old shampoo bottle — dandruff shampoo. Half a Butterfinger wrapper snuggles up to an empty Pepto Bismo bottle.

         The Chesapeake knows your habits.

         All that and much more we pack into this new box and name it New Bay Times.

         Each word signifies part of our mission. New for both the novelty of our creation and our vow to report how this millennial generation learns new ways to live sustainably along Chesapeake Bay and on planet earth. Bay for Chesapeake, our touchstone. Times for the fleeting world we chronicle.

         In 1994, we add Weekly to our name to signify our transformation from a fortnightly to a weekly newspaper.

         At the millennium, we compressed all that into two words: Bay Weekly.

         Twenty-four years later, we’re still at it. Oh, the number of stories we’ve packed into that box. In the next pages, I’ve put some of my favorites.

         Here they are again, these tales of wonder women, wise men and wild animals. Read them under my journalism menu …